By John Wilson
Durham and Orange county citizens and elected officials have until Jan. 11 to express local preferences regarding future light rail transit (LRT) routes linking Durham and Chapel Hill. This right should be taken seriously, as some proposed alignments could have dire environmental consequences if built.
Of concern to a growing number of area citizens and the N.C. Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is the fact that two possible LRT alignments would cross long sections of state-designated Significant Natural Heritage Areas (SNHAs). Designated by DENRâ€™s N.C. Natural Heritage Program, SNHAs are critically important for conservation of the stateâ€™s biodiversity because they contain rare natural communities, rare species and/or special animal habitats.
The â€œC1â€ alignment from UNCâ€™s Friday Center in Chapel Hill to southwest Durham would cut a 50-foot-wide corridor through almost three-quarters of a mile of mature forest and wetlands in the Little Creek Bottomlands and Slopes SNHA, which includes federal land managed as wildlife habitat and state game lands. According to the Natural Heritage Program, this area â€œcontains one of the last remnants in the state of the large bottomland forests that once dominated the Triassic Basins and still supports a high diversity of the wildlife typical of this region.â€ An alternative, â€œC2,â€ would minimize environmental impact by following existing roads (N.C. 54 and George King Road) outside the SNHA.
A recent letter from DENR conservation office director Linda Pearsall stated, â€œWe are particularly concerned about Alternative C1, since it crosses the SNHA along a currently undisturbed alignment and is therefore likely to have a more significant impact on wildlife than C2, which lies within the already disturbed transportation corridor along NC 54.â€ Craig Shoe of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which stewards the Little Creek federal wildlife lands, raised similar concerns about the â€œadverse impacts to government propertyâ€ of alignment C1. Shoe described the integral connection between these wetlands and Jordan Lake, the congressionally authorized purposes of which are â€œflood control, water supply, water quality, recreation, and fish and wildlife conservation.â€
Area citizens and local officials have made their environmental priorities clear in recent years. The comprehensive plans of Durham City and County, Orange County and Chapel Hill each contain specific language emphasizing protection of critical natural areas. Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chatham County also have high environmental standards. Local governments have made commendable zoning decisions and substantial financial investments to protect SNHAs.
There are also compelling, non-environmental reasons why the C2 alignment is preferable to C1. Triangle Transitâ€™s analysis estimates the cost of C2 will be at least $30 million less than C1, and predicts higher ridership for C2 than C1. C2 has 200 dedicated parking spaces for its proposed Woodmont station on N.C. 54, while C1 has none for its Meadowmont Lane station. Finally, C1 would close most feeder streets into busy Meadowmont Village every five minutes, raising significant traffic and safety concerns.
UNC, UNC Healthcare, the Chapel Hill Planning Department and the Meadowmont Community Association all favor C2.
The Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization will likely select a â€œLocally Preferred Alternativeâ€ in February. Please let these decision-makers know that C2 is the clear local preference.
Send your comments as soon as possible to firstname.lastname@example.org, with copies to your municipal- and county-elected officials.
John Wilson is a member of the Friends of the Little Creek Bottomlands and Slopes SNHA.